In the years past, when Hitler invaded the western areas of Poland, he had implemented Einsatzgruppen that were numbered with roman numerals I-VII. These had been brutal, yes, but they are nothing in comparison to the leagues of task forces that were being assembled in preparation for Operation Barbarossa in 1941. These men – some from the previous Einsatzgruppen; some from the SS; some from the Gestapo; – were being trained at a police academy in Pretzsch, Germany. These groups would march into cities following the Wehrmacht’s initial capture of that city. They would then “pacify” the foreign elements that were hostile to Germany. These forces were labeled with letters A; B; C; and D, and they are the most infamous for their atrocities.
In short, the Einsatzgrupen were Nazi paramilitary groups used to suppress any enemies amongst the populations of people in Eastern Europe. They were organized and split into 4 different groups and a further set of sub-groups, and they often went to great excesses in their brutality and they are responsible for many millions of deaths due to mass shootings.
They were assigned to follow German Army Group North through the Baltic states in Lithuania and Latvia. In this area the Jewish and gentile relations had been severely poisoned by the events that had transpired during the occuptation of the area by the Soviet Union. Many were deported by the Russians – Jews, Poles, and Lithuanians, – but again only the Jews were blamed. Einsatzgruppen used this to their advantage by using the latent feelings of anti-Semitism to instigate pogroms against the Jews.
Einsatzgruppe A was split into Sonderkommandos 1a and 1b; and Einsatzkommandos 2 and 3. Einsatzkommando 3 was headed by Karl Jaeger, whose infamous report details the precision and scale of the murders of Jews. They were headquartered in Danzig and their final destination was Leningrad.
Sonderkommando 1a was headed by Dr. Martin Sandberger and arrived in Kaunas on June 25, 1941.
Einsatzkommando 2 was headed by Rudolf Batz and they were very active in Riga, Latvia.
Einsatzkommando 3 was headed by the infamous Karl Jaeger, whose detailed action reports were used in the Nuremberg Trials.
On 14 November 1941, Nebe told Berlin that, up until then, 45,000 persons had been eliminated. A further report, dated 15 December 1942, established that the Einsatzgruppe B had shot a total of 134,298 people.
Sonderkommando 7a was commanded by Walter Blume. The Sonderkommando was active in Vilna, Nevel, Haradok, Vitebsk, Velizh, Rzhev, Vyazma, Kalinin, and Klintsy.
Sonderkommando 7b was headed by Gunther Rausch and was active in Brest-Litovsk and many other areas in eastern Belarus.
Einsatzkommando 8 was headed by Dr. Otto Bradfisch and this Einsatzkommando was active in Volkovisk, Baranovichi, Babruysk, Lahoysk, Mogilev, and Minsk. It executed 74,740 people.
Einsatzkommando 9 was headed by Alfred Filbert. It occupied Vilnius in July 1941, where over 4,000 Jews were murdered during that month.
Einsatzkommando 4a was headed by the infamous Paul Blobel and was active in Lvov; Lutsk; Kiev; and Kharkov. They executed over 50,000 persons in the first year alone.
Einsatzkommando 4b was headed by Gunther Herrmann and was active in Rostov; Lvov; and Tarnopil.
Einsatzkommando 5 was headed by Erwin Schulz and participated in the massacres at Lvov after the intial Soviet retreat.
Einsatzkommando 6 was also responsible for the Lwow pogroms.
They had Sonderkommando 10a; 10b; 11a; 11b; and 12 to assist them.
The Transition from Men only to Complete Annihilation
The Einsatzgruppen blasted through the countryside in those first months of the Summer of 1941. They had some degree of autonomy as we see that their practices differed slightly – for instance, Einsatzgruppe B was a fan of using the accusation of “Communist Bolshevik Jew” as a means to execute someone, while Einsatzgruppe C was way more frequently known to have said that the murder of Jews was a reprisal for dead German soldiers.
However, despite the differences being apparent, there was a definite uniform and fundamental shift overall in the perceived duties and goals of the Einsaztgruppen as August rolled through. By then, the orders were clear and they were no longer just trying to demoralize the Jewish people, but that they were trying to annihilate the entire group. Wholesale murder of women and children, in addition to the men, starts to become the policy of these mobile killing squads.
There is a slight pushback from certain more economically inclined Nazis who encourage the establishment of ghettos and only partial annihilation of the Jewish population at that time. They didn’t want to save the rest because they were good people, though, it was moreso because they realized how big of a labor source they would lose. So, the ghettoization process begins, but these ghettos are not meant to be a permanent solution and the lives of the Jewish people are already discarded – they just want to get the last bit of value of their victims as they can.
Towards the end of the Summer and into September each group goes through a marked period of time where they begin killing women and children as well as the men. By the end of the year we see a much different mentality. Stahlecker, the commander of Einsatzgruppe A, wrote to a colleague that the Jews will get progressively more disposible and become more of a liability as they move eastwards. This is euphemistic way of saying that there is no reason to keep the Jews around in ghettos like they did in the Polish campaign.
A huge, huge portion of the blame of the events that transpired in 1941 during Operation Barbarossa lays on the shoulders of the local civilians. The local Latvians; Lithuanians; Ukrainians; Romanians; and Volksdeutche (Baltic Germans) and sometimes even Poles, greatly assisted with the process of identifying and murdering Jews. This is evident with the Croatians and the Slovakians in other parts of Europe as well. They were called Schutzmannschaften and they eventually would number in the hundreds of thousands. At first it was just volunteer groups, but then later there were conscriptions and men had to go fight for the Germans on the front. The group that was of particular offense to the Jewish people were the former, the volunteers, who stayed local and helped to subvert the population of Jews in their region.
Himmler’s main rationale was the “avengers argument,” the notion that all of the Jewish kids that grow up without fathers will eventually become men and women who hate the Germans and seek revenge. The solution was meant to be “permanent” and leaving the children of their victims alive would only perpetuate this cycle. The Einsatzgruppen would often trick the Jews and say that they needed to assemble in a main square of whichever town they were in, in order to be counted.
During the occupation of Latvia and Lithuania there was particular brutality at the hand of the collaborators. Particularly the young Viktors Arajs in RIga, who presented himself to Stahlecker at the beginning of the occupation as an anti-Communist nationalist. The next day he was made head of a team of brutal beasts who would travel on the “blue bus” from Riga out into the country and make some rural town “judenfrei.”